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‘Teacher assistant with a grandma spin’

Granny K doles out lessons, hugs and encouragement

Grand Rapids — Katherine Higgins, better known to East Leonard students as “Granny K,” watched as four second-graders carefully held their pencils, shaping letters to write “step,” “stepped,” and “stepping”. 

“You are doing really good,” Higgins said to James Abron. “You’re staying in the lines.”

She made sure another student could see what teacher Lindsey Contreras was writing on the projector. “Can you see it OK? Where’s your glasses?” Higgins asked.

She then noticed Gabby McCoy working diligently. “You are doing so good, Gabby!” she said. 

“Thanks, Granny!” the beaming child responded.

Granny K offers support while James Abron does his work

Higgins knows these students well, from their personalities and talents to their likes and dislikes. She works with them four days a week as a “teacher assistant with a grandma spin,” said Principal Melissa Manning. That means – along with helping them with schoolwork – she passes out hugs and encouragement, wipes away tears and offers a calming voice when needed.

“Everytime I cry, I go to Granny K and she makes me happy,” said Ca’mille Kennebrew-Jackson.

“She works with me. She lets me read books and we love her,” said Zyionna Flowers.

‘Our schools need more Granny K’s.’

– second-grade teacher Lindsey Contreras

Higgins primarily works with a small group of students in Contreras’ class on reading, handwriting and using an online literacy program. 

“It is the thing I look forward to most,” said Higgins, who has a grown son and daughter and four grandchildren of her own. 

“You get to know the kids. Even the kids from last year still come up to me,” she said. “They breathe a little bit of life into you. They bring on some surprises, though. Kids say the darndest things.”

Extra Hugs and Love

Higgins is an AmeriCorps foster grandparent through Senior Neighbors, an organization providing services to seniors, including volunteer opportunities. Higgins goes above and beyond in the role, taking just Wednesday off from working at East Leonard.

“Some of the kids do not have grandmas,” Higgins said. “They look forward to me coming in … I think we help each other.”

Katherine Higgins, or “Granny K,” is always ready with support and love

Really, everyone looks forward to her coming in, Manning said: “She provides that extra love. We have some scholars that we know when they walk in are having a tough morning, and Granny can see their face right away and just jump right in and give them extra hugs and love. She really can reach them in a way that is super supportive for our scholars.”

Higgins knows what a help and extra set of hands can be in a classroom of busy youngsters. “Lindsay works extremely hard managing things. I feel good about helping her … I love the teachers here; they care about the kids; they know them.”

Contreras said Higgins is the perfect addition to the classroom. “She is nurturing, kind, loving and also holds high expectations for our scholars. Her love for children and her community is so evident in everything that she does,” she said. 

“She doesn’t only make connections with me and our second-grade class, she spreads love and support amongst our staff here at East Leonard, our past students and even students she hasn’t had a chance to work with regularly. I’m thankful every day that Granny and I were chosen to work together. Our schools need more Granny K’s.”

Katherine Higgins spends four days a week as a foster grandparent at East Leonard Elementary school

The Granny K Way

Higgins spent 15 years of her career as a bookkeeper at The Grand Rapids Press. She also volunteered during some lunch hours at the former Madison Park Elementary School, reading to third-graders.

Serving people is just in her nature. On the third Wednesday of each month, Higgins uses her time away from working with the second-graders to help another age demographic. She charters a bus for seniors to take trips – a service she’s been providing for 20 years.

‘You get to know the kids. Even the kids from last year still come up to me. They breathe a little bit of life into you.’

– foster grandma Katherine Higgins

Higgins said she signed up to be a foster grandparent when she saw the support her grandson, who is non-verbal, needed. While he attends another school, she wanted to help out in some way with other students. 

That’s just Granny K’s way.

“It’s  good to have her in our classroom,” said second-grader Romeo Sales-Munguia. “Her nice. Her make people happy even when they sad. Her be positive about being a teacher.”

Lisa Sarber, director of the Foster Grandparent program through Senior Neighbors, said they are always looking for more foster grandparents. Along with GRPS, about 50 “grandmas and grandpas” are serving in Kentwood, Wyoming, Kenowa Hills, Grandville and an afterschool program at the Salvation Army. Interested seniors can call (616) 771-9749 or visit AmeriCorps Seniors to sign up or learn more.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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